Before jazz vocalist Betty Carter saluted the late Sarah Vaughan at Baird Auditorium Thursday, the Smithsonian turned the tables on Carter, awarding her the James Smithson Medal for distinguished achievement in the arts. In typically sly and animated fashion, Carter scatted to and from the podium to accept the medal and then spent the next two hours proving why it was so well-deserved.
The Vaughan tribute took the form of a medley featuring some of the singer's best-known recordings. Except for "Everything I Have Is Yours," Carter hadn't previously performed any of the tunes, but the results were, by turns, sublime ("The Nearness of You"), sassy ("You're Mean to Me") and sensual ("Tenderly"). As usual, Carter took great liberties with these and other songs, compressing entire phrases into short bursts one moment and lingering over a single syllable the next, as if to savor the emotion. Melodies were entirely reworked, often at a pell-mell pace, but somehow the lyrics weren't obscured by Carter's fanciful improvisations.
Throughout the evening, Carter drew inspired support from the latest in a long line of young and extremely promising musicians to accompany her -- pianist Marc Cary, bassist Dwayne Burno and drummer Greg Hutchinson.